Following on from my previous post, my delightful assistant and I escaped the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tapestry viewing area and legged it upstairs to the relative calm of the Scottish Parliament’s Debating Chamber.
As we made our way through the building we were struck by the very angular architecture, which made me think of those mindboggling drawings by Dutch artist, M C Escher:
Had we been visiting on a different day of the week, the Debating Chamber might have been full of MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament), but we were there on a Monday, which is one of the days when the Parliament doesn’t sit. On the down side, it meant we couldn’t attend a debate, but on the up side it meant we could wander around freely.
I’ve often seen pictures of the Chamber on TV but I wasn’t quite prepared for the scale of it. It was vast and airy, and delightfully free of milling bodies, in contrast to the downstairs lobby:
One of the remarkable things about the Chamber is the absence of supporting columns for the enormous ceiling. Instead, there are reinforced steel and laminated oak beams spanning the area. The beams are held in place by 112 steel joints, each one made to fit the unique angles at its point in the structure.
There are 131 seats and desks, laid out in a semi-circular arrangement to avoid the sort of confrontational style of debate that can be seen, for example, in the Chamber of the House of Commons in London.
The desks are made of oak and sycamore and over 60 of the MSPs’ seats are wheelchair accessible. My dad thought the desks looked as if each one had a pair of trousers laid over the back of it (the Presiding Officer and her clerks sit at the big desk at the front):
While we were strolling around a tour came in and I overheard some of what the tour guide was saying (you can book to go on a tour of the building for free but there were no spaces available while we were there).
She pointed out the clocks that are placed at strategic points throughout the Chamber, explaining that some of them show the time and others show how long the current speaker has been talking for.
Speaking time for individual MSPs is limited, and each desk is fitted up with a microphone. The microphone is turned on when it’s a speaker’s time to talk, and abruptly turned off when their time has run out. I imagine that speaking for the exact amount of allotted time is quite a skill, and once honed could prove useful for radio interviews:
Above the MSPs, a semi-circular gallery seats 225 members of the public, 18 invited guests and 34 members of the media. The tour guide mentioned that this constitutes a larger public gallery than you will find in any other parliamentary building in Europe.
We rested our weary bones by trying out the seats and I thought they were remarkably comfortable. I could well imagine attending a debate here and nodding off in the sunshine flooding through the huge windows:
Talking of windows, there’s a lot of natural light in the Chamber. There were no artificial lights on when we visited and it was a dull day, but the room was very bright.
Fine views were to be had out to the old Palace of Holyrood across the road, and up to the local hill, Arthur’s Seat, and the Queen’s Park:
The vision of the building’s architect, Enric Miralles (who sadly died before it was inaugurated), included landscaping around the building to make it look as if it was part of the natural environment. This included laying turf on the roofs and planting Scottish wild flowers around the grounds.
He also chose to plant the same sorts of trees as are found in the grounds of Holyrood Palace across the road, in addition to planting rowan trees, because they’re traditionally regarded as a symbol of good fortune.
When we’d had our fill of sitting around in the Chamber, we got up to leave and both reported feeling somewhat dizzy. Whether this was due to sitting up in the gallery looking down or, as I think more likely, having our brains confused by all the hard lines and angles in the building, I don’t know but we were both relieved to get back outside into the fresh air.
Outside, there were giant twiglets stuck to some of the walls. Perhaps noticing these on our way in explains the curious yearning I had for salty snacks during the visit:
Embedded into part of the outside wall we found a number of large panels filled with quotations. Some of these were from poets or writers, and others were from the Bible or anonymous sayings. They seemed to me to be rather a strange collection, including Scots and Gaelic as well as English:
If you fancy visiting the Parliament yourself, it’s open from Monday to Saturday, and if you want to go on a tour I would recommend booking in advance.
There’s a cafe (which we didn’t patronise, on this occasion) and a shop, and perhaps most surprising of all, a free creche. You can deposit your offspring there for up to four hours while you visit the Parliament. It’s apparenty the only facility of its kind in Europe, and sounds like a good idea to me.